Ever problematic is the Holocaust drama, which, given the immensity of the evil of the Nazi agenda, generally trivializes the horror. At the same time, artists will, and should, continue to explore, with intelligence and concern, that terrible episode of history. On that note, Laszlo Nemes has created a marvel with “Son of Saul.”
Nemes takes us not just behind the barbed wire but right to the door of the gas chambers at Auschwitz in this exceptional feature debut. Using a storytelling method that initially seems gimmicky but ultimately feels essential, he presents the 1944-set drama almost entirely through the eyes and ears of one character.
Saul (Geza Rohrig) is a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, the unit forced do the Nazis’ most horrible dirty work. This includes ushering other Jews into the “showers,” burning the bodies and disposing of the ashes. The camera tracks Saul in constant close-up as he performs his duties with the shell-shocked expression of a man whose survival hinges on his suppression of his ability to feel.
Saul’s pilot light ignites when a boy is found alive amid the gassed corpses. Subsequently killed by a Nazi captor, the child stirs something in Saul, who says the boy is his son. Obsessed with giving the body a proper Jewish burial, he sets out to find a rabbi.
As Saul makes his way around the camp, his mission, which is self-absorbed and delusional, threatens to impede an escape plot hatched by fellow inmates.
If a downside to Nemes’ storytelling approach exists, it is that the concerted, close-up focus on the deluded, opaque Saul leaves certain plot elements hazy. This may frustrate some.
But Auschwitz is no ordinary environment, and Nemes’ unconventional presentation of Saul’s warped predicament proves effective and appropriate.
The screams, shouts, footsteps, gunshots and other sensations perceived by Saul, which Nemes and cowriter Clara Royer based on real-life Sonderkommando testimonies, including those found in Claude Lanzmann’s monumental documentary “Shoah,” add up to a riveting, sensorial, chaotic, impressionist, believable fictional document.
The film doesn’t purport to be a concrete, complete representation. (Lanzmann himself, who generally frowns on Holocaust dramatizations, has praised it.)
Additionally, Nemes, who has worked for the major Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr (whose fondness for long takes he appears to share) is a skilled dramatist. He absorbs us in Saul’s plight, maintains a tone of dread, and achieves emotional impact without sentimentality.
Rohrig, a Hungary-born poet with little acting experience, commands attention.
A challenging but captivating protagonist, Saul is wisely presented not as a hero but as a casualty of Nazi evil. We cannot embrace his mission, but there is something deeply moving in his quest to make his life meaningful.
Son of Saul
Three and a half stars
Starring: Geza Rohrig, Levente Molnar, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont
Written by: Laszlo Nemes, Clara Royer
Directed by: Laszlo Nemes
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes